Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The third act collapse

A game losing its way towards the end and tripping over the finish line is nothing new. It happens for all sorts of reasons, some of which are truly not the developers vault. Money running out, deadlines and people leaving the team are all possible reasons, but every once in a while an otherwise excellent game takes such a hard left turn that I have to wonder what exactly happened. Perhaps all the programmers started smoking something, or perhaps the all stopped at the same time. Maybe the Taco Bell down the street burned down, or the testing team started a riot, or the pizza place stopped delivering. Whatever the reason, a few of these third act collapses have always stuck out as particularly egregious, and a new game was added to their number last night.

It should also be noted that they all come from the same two developers, so there just might be something to that illicit drugs being the cause idea.

The game: Far Cry
The offender: trigens

Might as well start with the king. The final third of Far Cry set the bar by which all future blunders are measured. Far Cry was an excellent open world-ish shooter that favored stealth over direct combat. I spent many, many hours crawling through the underbrush waiting for just the right moment to take out an enemy. It was tense, very well put together, and most of all fun. Then these monsters show up and everything that made the first two thirds of the game enjoyable is thrown out. This is going to be a common thread for all the game I am going to verbally assault: moving away from what made the game fun in the first place. Far Cry came out before every shooter required a cover system, so you have to make your own, hiding behind rocks and trees and anything else you could find, hoping you were ducking down low enough to avoid losing the top of your head. This worked because the enemies had both a sense of self preservation and were smart enough to flank you if you sat behind  your rock for too long. The trigens did nothing of the sort, charging at you head long, eventually learning how to wield rocket launchers of all things and one shotting you from across the map.

I never did finish Far Cry without turning on god mode.

The game: Crysis
The offender: whatever those damn flying alien things were

Strike two for Crytek. Crysis was a game about killing North Korean soldiers. Then these guys showed up:

They have exact same problem that the trigens did. Crysis worked because you felt like a badass, switching abilities on the fly, effortlessly moving from target to target, and generally thinning out the communist population. Then the aliens show up and none of the abilities that you have honed matter anymore. You can't sneak up on them, they fly most of the time. You can't throw exploding barrels at them, they are too tough. And you can't get into melee with them and punt them into the distance because, again, they are flying most of the time. This is not as bad of a collapse as Far Cry because it comes much closer to the end, though the zero g sections are almost as annoying as the similar sections in Unreal 2, a game that just barely avoids this list (because the rest of it wasn't very good, either).

The game: Uncharted
The offender: whatever the hell these things are

That's right Drake, you're fucked.

These guys might as well be trigens again. What I got from the wiki (because I remember very little about the first Uncharted) is that they are monsters created by a virus that was contained with the El Dorado sarcophagus. They break the game in a very similar way: Uncharted was a cover based shooter. This only works when you enemies take cover as well. The descendants (again, from the wiki) come at you dozens at a time in a rush worthy of the zerg. The shooting in Uncharted was already paint by the numbers, but at least it was funtional. Taking cover while these guys were rushing you just meant dying with your head between your knees.

The game: Uncharted 3
The offender: you name it

While Uncharted 3 didn't radically change the rules of the game in the final third, it did manage to trot out several things in a row that weren't any fun. Right before Drake took a pointless pirate killing detour he was drugged and spent about twenty minutes running through cramped streets, unable to distinguish what was real from what was not. It was a neat effect, but it went on a bit too long. Not wanting to waste all of the time and money they spent on the effect, Naughty Dog uses it again for the last level, only this time I was forced to shoot things while Drake couldn't walk straight.

And the things I had to shoot all looked like Ghost Rider, took several clips a piece to bring down, and gained the ability to fire rockets from their fingers when close to death. Their series of encounters was so annoying that I almost put the game down. It sounds cliched, but who play tested this? I'm not talking about bugs, I just want to know who played through this and said, 'Yes, this is still fun, it is a good idea.'

Honestly, that should be the only test that matters. Give the game to someone who hasn't played it before and ask them 'are you having fun right now?' If the answer is no ask them again in five minutes. Two no's in a row and that section of the game, especially when it is an action game, needs to be fixed. Watching Drake wander around in the desert was interesting, and the sand looked amazing, but after the first five minutes I was done with it. After ten more I was bored.

It's a shame, really. Uncharted 3 was very good, but all I am going to remember about it is how little fun it was to get killed over and over by Nick Cage's comic book wet dreams.